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5:25 pm - 06.13.05
Saint Sebastian: Art Links & Info
The Iconography of Saint Sebastian

Catholic Community Forum: St. Sebastian Gallery

Sebastiane: The Medieval Institute, Western Michigan University

Tanzio da Varallo, Saint Sebastian

Enrique de la Vega's St. Sebastian

Sebastiane, by Alessandro Bavari

Olga's Gallery of Christian Saints

Vagarshak Aramyan, St. Sebastian (2001)

St. Sebastian II by Thomas Sterr

The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian (film stills)

Images Online, search: St. Sebastiane


St. Sebastian: a homoerotic history

Although he has had various embodiments throughout history--plague saint in the Middle Ages, shimmering youth of Apollonian beauty throughout the Renaissance, "decadent" androgyne in the late nineteenth century--Sebastian has long been known as the homosexual's saint.

Precisely when and how this role evolved may be related to details of St. Sebastian's life, the earliest reference to which can be found in the Martyrology of 354 A.D., which refers to him as a young nobleman from either Milan or Narbonne, whose official capacity was commander of a company of archers of the imperial bodyguard.

According to the Church's official Acta Sanctorum, Sebastian, serving under the emperors Diocletian and Maximian, came to the rescue of Christian soldiers, Marcellinus and Mark, and thereby confessed his own Christianity. Diocletian insisted that Sebastian be shot to death by his fellow archers; these orders were followed, and Sebastian was left for dead.

What is often neglected in later accounts is that Sebastian survived this initial attack after having been nursed by a "pious woman," Irene. Diocletian was required to order a second execution, and this time Sebastian was beaten to death by soldiers in the Hippodrome.

These details--based on accounts written centuries after Sebastian's death and therefore largely apocryphal--may have helped form Sebastian's subsequent reputation as a homosexual martyr since his story constitutes a kind of "coming out" tale followed by his survival of an execution that may be read symbolically as a penetration.

Possibly his role as a plague saint may have generated associations between Sebastian and what, in a nineteenth-century medical context, was represented as a disease, homosexuality.

St. Sebastian in the Renaissance

In the Renaissance, Sebastian emerged as an extraordinarily popular subject for painters, perhaps rivaled only by Jesus and Mary; he was especially prized by artists who saw in the young saint a figure of Hellenic loveliness. Numerous painters--Tintoretto, Mantegna, Titian, Guido Reni, Giorgione, Perugino, Botticelli, Bazzi ("Il Sodoma")--recast Sebastian as a martyr beatifically receptive to his arrow-ridden fate.

There is some evidence to suggest that St. Sebastian fostered homoerotic implications in the Renaissance; in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (1600), for example, the character of Sebastian, saved from a shipwreck by Antonio, is the intense focus of Antonio's love: "And to his image, which methought did promise / Most venerable worth, did I devotion."

St. Sebastian in the Nineteenth Century

It was primarily the Renaissance depiction of Sebastian that served a later, explicitly homosexual cult of St. Sebastian that took hold with remarkable force beginning in the nineteenth century.

Visiting Rome in 1844, Charles Dickens expressed bewilderment that St. Sebastian should have been such a pervasive subject for Italian artists, bemoaning the "indiscriminate and determined raptures" of certain critics as "incompatible with the true appreciation of the really great and transcendent works of art."

Increasingly, Sebastian in the nineteenth century is fought over by Victorian traditionalists and mischief-minded aesthetes attempting to sustain competing conceptions of the martyr's identity.

In his religiously inspired 1847 Sketches in the History of Christian Art, Lord Lindsay praised a series of fourteenth-century frescoes by noting that "their peculiar merit consists in the conception of the character of St. Sebastian, not as hot, enthusiastic youth, the fond fancy of later painters, but as a mature man, circumspect and wary while caution will suit his purpose, but resolute as a lion when it becomes necessary to throw off disguise."

Lord Lindsay traces Sebastian's status as feminized male to the misguided conceptions of Renaissance painters.

The godfather of English aestheticism, Walter Pater, devotes a fictional "imaginary portrait" to the tale of "Sebastian von Storck" (1886) in which one can observe a new transmutation of the martyr, this time as a death-courting passive youth.

No longer representing stalwart Christian courage, Pater's Sebastian is "in flight from all that was positive," who seemed "in love with death, preferring winter to summer."

Increasingly, he became a sadomasochistic icon of deliberate perversity. "What is religious about that St. Sebastian, brilliant in his youthfulness, like the suffering Bacchus of Christianity?" asks a character in Anatole France's novel The Red Lily (1894).

Oscar Wilde, who adopted the pseudonym "Sebastian Melmoth" on his release from prison, invokes Sebastian in his 1881 poem to Keats, "The Grave of Keats," whom he describes as "fair Sebastian, and as foully slain." For Wilde, the Roman martyr becomes a self-consciously deployed subcultural emblem.

Frederick Rolfe's novel, The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole (written in 1909 but published in 1934), features a hero who is himself writing a novel with a character named Sebastian Archer as its protagonist.

Rolfe's 1891 sonnets dedicated to a Reni Sebastian in Rome's Capitoline gallery were considered so scandalous on their publication in The Artist magazine that they helped in the ousting of Charles Kains-Jackson as editor.

St. Sebastian in the Twentieth Century

St. Sebastian appeared centrally in the innovative work of the French painters Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau, while in 1906 the American photographer F. Holland Day welcomed Sebastian to the epoch of the photograph by executing a sequence of images of the martyr modeled on working-class youths.

With the 1911 performance of Debussy's Le Martyre de St. Sébastien at Paris's Châtelet Theater, an eclectic amalgam of orchestral music, mime, and dance based on a play by Gabriele d'Annunzio and starring the dancer Ida Rubinstein, Sebastian stood at the controversial center of a stylized pageant. "Encore! Encore! Encore!" proclaimed Rubinstein's androgyne-saint as the arrows were tossed at her svelte body.

That a woman and a Jew was cast as a Christian martyr only intensified the cultural backlash against Sebastian's recent adherents, persuading the Catholic Church to blacklist the performance.

The soldier Sebastian became a popular subject in homoerotic poems of the First World War, while the martyr's very name frequently stood for a Europe in a crisis of spiritual paralysis, notably in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (1945), whose Sebastian Flyte, scion of an aristocratic Catholic family, stands for an entire generation, as Waugh wrote, "doomed to decay and spoliation."

A resilient "decadent" motif in the work of such diverse literary artists as Cocteau, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Mishima, Kafka, Rilke, Auden, and Thomas Mann (whose Aschenbach in Mann's 1911 Death in Venice worships Sebastian as a "new type of hero"), Sebastian has also engaged numerous contemporary artists.

Robert Wilson revived the Debussy work at the Paris Opera in 1989, and Derek Jarman directed a film on the martyr's life, Sebastiane (1976), scripted entirely in Latin. Jarman's film rekindled an embellishment of the saint's legend by suggesting that Sebastian had been Diocletian's rejected lover.


Sebastian's extraordinary success as a "gay saint" is related to his status as an updated replacement for other culturally resonant "homosexual legends"--Hadrian and Antinous, Jonathan and David, Ganymede--whose narratives were reducible to narratives of love.

But the essence of Sebastian's tale resists such sentimentalization, standing as a modern emblem of radical isolationism, both a homoerotically charged object of desire and a source of solace for the rejected homosexual.

Since the advent of AIDS, St. Sebastian's historical position as a saint with the power to ward off the plague has been given a new sustenance, inspiring artists, such as the late David Wojnarowicz, to incorporate the martyr into their works. In painting, literature, film, music, theater, performance art, and recently, a video for the rock group R.E.M., St. Sebastian remains the most frequently renewed archetype of modern gay identity.

-Richard Kaye
(Richard Kaye is Assistant Professor of English at Hunter College. He is completing a book-length study of St. Sebastian in nineteenth-century art and literature.)


Feast: January 20

[From his acts, written before the end of the fourth age. The gladiators, who were abolished by Honorius in 403, subsisted when these acts were compiled. See Bollandus, who thinks St. Ambrose wrote them; also Tillemont, t. iv. p. 551.]
St Sebastian was born at Narbonne, in Gaul, but his parents were of Milan, in Italy, and he was brought up in that city. He was a fervent servant of Christ, and though his natural inclinations gave him an aversion to a military life, yet to be better able, without suspicion, to assist the confessors and martyrs in their sufferings, he went to Rome and entered the army under the emperor Carinus about the year 283. It happened that the martyrs, Marcus and Marcellianus, under sentence of death, appeared in danger of being shaken in their faith by the tears of their friends: Sebastian—seeing this, steps in and made them a long exhortation to constancy, which he delivered with the holy fire that strongly affected all his hearers. Zoe, the wife of Nicostratus, having for six years lost the use of speech by a palsy in her tongue, fell at his feet, and spoke distinctly; by the saint making the sign of the cross on her mouth. She, with her husband Nicostratus, who was master of the rolls,[1] the parents of Marcus and Marcellianus, the jailer Claudius, and sixteen other prisoners, were converted; and Nicostratus, who had charge of the prisoners, took them to his own house, where Polycarp, a holy priest, instructed and baptized them. Chromatius, governor of Rome, being informed of this, and that Tranquillinus, the father of SS. Marcus and Marcellianus, had been cured of the gout by receiving baptism, desired to be instructed in the faith, being himself grievously afflicted with the same distemper. Accordingly, having sent for Sebastian, he was cured by him, and baptized with his son Tiburtius. He then enlarged the converted prisoners, made his slaves free, and resigned his prefectship.

Chromatius, with the emperor's consent, retired into the country in Campania, taking many new converts along with him. It was a contest of zeal, out of a mutual desire of martyrdom, between St. Sebastian and the priest Polycarp, which of them should accompany this troop, to complete their instruction, and which should remain in the city to encourage and assist the martyrs, which latter was the more dangerous province. St. Austin wished to see such contests of charity amongst the ministers of the church.[2] Pope Caius, who was appealed to, judged it most proper that Sebastian should stay in Rome as a defender of the church. In the year 286, the persecution growing hot, the pope and others concealed themselves in the imperial palace, as a place of the greatest safety, in the apartments of one Castulus, a Christian officer of the court. St. Zoe was first apprehended, praying at St. Peter's tomb on the feast of the apostles. She was stifled with smoke, being hung by the heels over a fire. Tranquillinus, ashamed to be less courageous than a woman, went to pray at the tomb of St. Paul, and was seized by the populace and stoned to death. Nicostratus, Claudius, Castorius, and Victorinus were taken, and, after having been thrice tortured, were thrown into the sea. Tiburtius, betrayed by a false brother, was beheaded. Castulus, accused by the same wretch, was thrice put on the rack, and afterwards buried alive. Marcus and Marcellianus were nailed by the feet to a post, and having remained in that torment twenty-four hours, were shot to death by arrows.

St. Sebastian, having sent so many martyrs to heaven before him, was himself impeached before the Emperor Diocletian, who, having grievously reproached him with ingratitude, delivered him over to certain archers of Mauritania, to be shot to death. His body was covered with arrows, and he left for dead. Irene, the widow of St. Castulus, going to bury him, found him still alive, and took him to her lodgings, where, by care, he recovered of his wounds, but refused to flee, and even placed himself one day by a staircase where the emperor was to pass, whom he first accosted, reproaching him for his unjust cruelties against the Christians. This freedom of speech, and from a person, too, whom he supposed to have been dead, greatly astonished the emperor; but, recovering from his surprise, he gave orders for his being seized and beat to death with cudgels, and his body thrown into the common sewer. A pious lady, called Lucina, admonished by the martyr in a vision, got it privately removed, and buried it in the catacombs at the entrance of the cemetery of Calixtus. A church was afterwards built over his relics by Pope Damasus, which is one of the seven ancient stationary churches at Rome, but not one of the seven principal churches of that city, as some moderns mistake; it neither being one of the five patriarchal churches, nor one of the seventy-two old churches which give titles to cardinals. Vandelbert,

St. Ado, Eginard, Sigebert, and other contemporary authors relate that, in the reign of Louis Debonnair, Pope Eugenius II gave the body of St. Sebastian to Hilduin, Abbot of St. Denys, who brought it into France, and it was deposited at St. Medard's, at Soissons, on the 8th of December, in 826 With it is said to have been brought a considerable portion of the relics of St. Gregory the Great. The rich shrines of SS. Sebastian, Gregory, and Medard were plundered by the Calvinists in 1564, and the sacred bones thrown into a ditch, in which there was water. Upon the declaration of two eye-witnesses, they were afterwards found by the Catholics, and in 1578 enclosed in three new shrines, though the bones of the three saints could not be distinguished from each other.[3] The head of this martyr, which was given to St. Willibrord by Pope Sergius, is kept at Esternach, in the duchy of Luxemburg. Portions of his relics are shown in the cathedral at St. Victor's; the Theatins and Minims at Paris; in four churches at Mantua; at Malacca, Seville, Toulouse; Munich in the ducal palace; Tournay in the cathedral; Antwerp in the Church of the Jesuits; and at Brussels in the chapel of the court, not at St. Gudule's, as some have mistaken.[4] St. Sebastian has been always honoured by the church as one of her most illustrious martyrs. We read in Paul the deacon in what manner, in the year 680, Rome was freed from a raging pestilence by the patronage of this saint. Milan in 1575, Lisbon in 1599, and other places, have experienced in like calamities the effects of his intercession with God in their behalf.

(Taken from Vol. I of "The Lives or the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints" by the Rev. Alban Butler.)


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